What is happiness?

Synopsis : Happiness is a feeling that varies from people to people and culture to culture. Some are happy if they find enough food for the day while others feel happiness in expensive gadgets  or clothes so the priorities can be very different depending on where a person lives and his financial ability. Wise people say that true happiness comes when people share what little they have with others.

What is happiness?


Source : Google photo

One is often confronted in life with this eternal question . Different people will answer differently depending on their religion, their cultural background, their ethnicity, their race, their various experiences in life, their social status, their financial well being, their attitude, their beliefs, their upbringing and their motivation. Those are a lot of things to depend on just to answer this question- What is happiness?

A Filipino will say he is happy when he eats balut which is a duck egg with a duck formed inside. A Chinese may say playing mahjong makes him happy. An American may say it is a big hamburger with french fries and a can of Pabst beer and an Indian may say it is the new car he just bought that makes him happy. So the answers vary depending on many things I just mentioned. But these are all physical things that money can buy. Americans will say “ I will buy you some good time meaning happiness” implying that happiness can be bought just like a can of soda or beer.

When the happiness of a person depends on so many factors then it seems to be a very difficult question to answer but I will try to analyze this and come to some conclusions . Many sages over centuries have tried to answer this question but the debate still continues unabated. Often people mistakenly think that acquiring physical things like food, car or trinkets equates happiness but physical things do not endure. A car becomes old and breaks down, a trinket loses its allure, foods are just food and end up in a manure pile eventually, clothes become tattered and rejected. The happiness therefore means different things to different people and different age group.

A child is happy with his new toy, a teen ager is happy with his new gadget, an adult is happy with his new car, an old woman is happy with her grand kids , an old man is happy with his pipe smoking Amphora and sipping a bottle of Chianti but again these are the physical things money can buy. Yes even grand kids can be bought with toys and food as all grand mothers know only too well.

But I believe the real happiness lies elsewhere. If you ever get to see the movie “ Gods must be crazy” where the bushmen and their children play with just a bottle and even fight over it , you will know that happiness can be a shallow feeling and often very fleeting. The bushmen’s kids were the subject of an experiment when one kid was given a piece of cake by an European to see what he will do with it. He was surprised when the kid called all the kids and they formed a circle and sat down while the kid with the cake meticulously divided the cake and gave everyone a piece. When he was asked why he shared his cake and not eat it by himself, he looked very surprised and said how could he enjoy the cake when all the kids just looked at him? This was not the right thing to do to make others unhappy by not sharing. These children of nature had come to know a very basic fact of happiness that still eludes most people who are selfish. They find happiness in sharing. Eventually the bushmen had to reject the coke bottle because they could not share it with others so considered evil.

Some people are happy with very little and they share whatever they have with others without pre conditions. They are happy just to share it. They do not ask anything in return because sharing is a pure sign of altruism. The material culture of the west has taught people to be selfish and self centered from the childhood so that behavior is embedded in their adult life.

But a child who shares his food or toys or anything no matter how trivial learns that there is happiness in sharing because it makes the other person happy. Such a child grows up to be a happy person. Some become philanthropists like Bill Gates and Zuckerberg and use their wealth to eradicate poverty or find a cure for dreadful diseases. There are many rich people but very few give their money to causes that benefit the poor and the underprivileged.

In some religions, they teach people to share. The Hindu temples feed lots of people every day and Sikhs do the same without asking if you are a Sikh or a Hindu. Anyone can enjoy free food. A hungry person needs food first and trinkets or toys later. But many fast food restaurants dump their remaining unsold food into garbage bins instead of feeding the hungry and poor for free. This happens in America and also in Europe. They even chase away the poor who are searching for food in the garbage bins.

In Europe they dump millions of liters of milk on the highways instead of selling it at low price or give it to the poor. If you believe that Europe is not poor then just see the gypsies and ethnic people who live at the edge of their society and are dirt poor or millions of war refugees who do not have food and shelter or warm clothes to fight off freezing weather conditions. They would rather waste precious food than to give it to the poor. Perhaps they could learn something from the bushmen of Kalahari.

Once the dairy farmers in France destroyed hundreds of tons of butter because they were not getting a good price and in Spain and Italy they destroy truckloads of tomatoes and oranges for fun where the unemployment runs as high as 25% among the young people so there are many poor people who live hand to mouth.

So we come back to the question of what is happiness and what makes a person happy. My personal experience in life is perhaps worth sharing here.

I learned very early during my childhood that selfishness was a sin so one should always share. No one really told me this but my parents were the most unselfish people you could ever meet so we followed their example. By we I do not mean all the siblings. Some were selfish and did not follow our parent’s unselfish example. Now the kids are showered with toys and gadgets by some parents but by and large these kids put more value in their toys and gadgets than in sharing and developing empathy with others.

People who share but with preconditions are the worst kind because they demean the value of sharing. There is a chapter in the book Prophet by Kahlil Gibran where he talks about sharing and what is the meaning of true sharing. When the Mormons were moving west to find a place to settle down, they found many people dying of thirst in the desert but they would not give these people a drop of water and food unless they became Mormons first. There are many such examples.

I also learned not to attach any value to anything material be it a toy or a trinket because I learned to live without it. Other kids had toys or mecano set or fancy clothes and new bicycles but it did not make me jealous. I was happy without those things and often made my own toys and repaired my torn shirt collar. But sharing and taking is discouraged by some parents out of false pride. Often you see it in very poor people in the mountains in the United States who take great pride in not taking anything from anyone. They are also the meanest people.

The movie “Education of little tree” is quite educative in that sense where the child called little tree gives his beautiful pair of moccasins his grandmother made for him to a little girl who was barefoot and loved the soft moccasins. Then her father who was a dirt farmer came and roughly took the moccasins off the little girl and threw them away saying he does not like charity. I have met many such people in my life who live with a false sense of pride and feel self righteous. One American woman whom we invited to our home left some money surreptitiously on the sofa because she felt that she must pay back somehow for our hospitality so that she is under no obligation.

A child who grows up sharing what he has with others also grows up with a healthy attitude about giving and sharing. I wrote about Kaloda in one of my blogs where he gave me the gift of reading by sharing his books when I was young. He asked for nothing in return but I remember him fondly because it was such a generous gift that I still enjoy after all those years.

Our sages have always said that one must learn to accept anything with equanimity. This is a very loaded word but what it means is that one must not attach any value to anything in life and take the attitude that he can do without it and be happy. This is a lot harder to practice than you think. It is very difficult to say that you don’t need the car or a palatial house or fancy clothes and fancy food and can live simply in a small house, eat ordinary food and wear second hand clothes and be happy.

We are taught by the consumerist society that more is better. The TV ads bombard you with this message day in and day out that you must buy this and buy that to be happy. This constant deluge of capitalistic message over the media has its intended results so people run to get their latest cell phone, shampoo or deodorant without realizing that people who advertise do it for commercial gain only but it does not in real terms enhance your sense of happiness in any endurable way. In fact it does the opposite. It makes people very unhappy if they cannot buy what is advertised. If it is a fad then they must have it to be equal with others who are also into fads. But the fads are fleeting. Soon a new fad shows up making people anxious all over again.

So the happiness lies within a person. If you are not happy within yourself, the fads will never make you happy. A happy person is not influenced by what others think of him or say about him. He may have money but prefers to walk and not get a fancy car to show off. People who tend to show off their house, cars and money are perhaps the most miserable people because they seek approval from others all the time. If you do not praise their new car or big house then they get upset. Such people do not have self confidence in themselves and have low self esteem. They also tend to be selfish, mean and aggressive in their behavior towards others.

So learn some thing from those bush people in the Kalahari who have figured it out long ago that true happiness is in sharing, developing empathy for others, in helping people in need without preconditions and live a life with equanimity. I know this is a tall order for most people but worth trying anyway.


Note :  My blogs are also available in French, Spanish, German and Japanese  languages at the following links as well as my biography:

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